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Buenos Aires, Argentina: Revisiting My First Love in the Form of A City

Buenos Aires: there is not much I can say about this capital of a nation of contradictions that you haven’t already heard. Buenos Aires is a city of faded elegance teeming with life, perched on the banks of a river which runs straight to the ocean. And it is also one of the places I once called home.

Buenos Aires, Argentina: Bosques de Palermo
Sunset in the Bosques de Palermo, Buenos Aires

Back when I was a fresh faced girl straight from the woods of New England, I decided to spend a year abroad in Buenos Aires, studying Latin American literature, history, and culture, but most of all, to learn Spanish. I chose Buenos Aires because I wanted to experience city life, and once I got a taste of its culture, I was hooked. I fell in love with Buenos Aires, and fell hard.

Buenos Aires, Argentina: Recoleta
Appreciating Fall in Parque Las Heras, Near My Old Apartment

I lived in Argentina from mid-2001 to mid-2002, experiencing the ups and downs of its economic crisis in December 2001 and the resulting devaluation of the peso, a decisions whose aftereffects continue to reverberate in the nation’s economy today. I visited the city in 2007, spending two weeks refamiliarizing myself with its streets and trying to gauge the nature of the changes post-crisis. When I went back to Argentina in 2013, I opted not to visit Buenos Aires again, as it was too far from my route north to Peru and Ecuador.

One of the awesome aspects of living in Chile is that I have several friends in Santiago, one of whom is my dear friend Diego, a Buenos Aires native currently living and working in Chile’s capital. In February, I finally got to meet Diego’s then-fiancee, Alejandra, and they invited me to celebrate their wedding in Buenos Aires this past June. Of course, I said I would be happy to attend and started looking for affordable flights!

Buenos Aires, Argentina: La Boda!
Enjoying the Fun at Diego and Alejandra’s Wedding in Buenos Aires

When I booked my ticket to Buenos Aires, I wrote to the rest of my Argentine friends to schedule some time to hang out. I also made a small bucket list of things I wanted do during my short visit to Buenos Aires, and especially things I wanted to eat! Here is a chronicle of my brief adventures in Buenos Aires, captured on my smartphone.

Savoring My Favorites in Argentine Cuisine with Friends

Buenos Aires, Argentina: Empanadas en La Querencia
Delicious Empanadas at La Querencia, Buenos Aires

While Chilean empanadas can be delicious, Argentine empanadas are the best. I particularly love humita empanadas with their creamy corn filling and any empanadas featuring leafy greens and herbs.

A photo posted by Kim Dodge (@blueskylimit) on

Humita at La Querencia, Buenos Aires

My dear friend Cynthia knew a good place to take me so I could get my fix and also some of my much loved northwest Argentine cuisine, including an actual humita, a corn husk stuffed with the same creamy corn filling. We headed to La Querencia in Recoleta. It was a good place for us to escape from the rainy weather and catch up.

A photo posted by Kim Dodge (@blueskylimit) on

Posing with Cynthia in La Querencia, Buenos Aires

The next night, I met up with another group of friends, whom I met 13 years ago when we were all traveling in Mendoza. We headed to Cumaná, another restaurant specializing in traditional Argentine cuisine.

Buenos Aires, Argentina: Reencuentro en Cumaná
Empanadas, Crayons, and Wine at Cumaná, Buenos Aires

Of course, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to have more empanadas along with a delicious salad, and we shared the “pinguino,” a penguin-shaped pitcher filled with house wine. We spent hours laughing and catching up, and marveling about the fact that we are still in touch all these years later!

Buenos Aires, Argentina: Reencuentro en Cumaná
Posing with My Friends in Cumaná, Buenos Aires

Of course, I also had to sample Argentina’s rich helado (ice cream) a few times for old times’ sake. I always have to enjoy chocolate and dulce de leche flavors when in Argentina.

Can't forget to have helado in Buenos Aires! #helado #buenosaires #argentina

A photo posted by Kim Dodge (@blueskylimit) on

Ice Cream from Persicco, Buenos Aires

The last item on the food list was a delicious Argentine-style pizza. I ended up being super impressed by the impressive flavor combinations, including a pizza featuring the spicy jalapeño.

Friends in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Enjoying Pizza with Cynthia and Alejandro in Buenos Aires

This dinner gave me a chance to get to know Cynthia’s husband Alejandro better and enjoy one more good meal before heading back to Chile.

Revisiting My Favorite Places in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires, Argentina: El Ataneo
El Ataneo, Buenos Aires

High on the agenda for my short trip was revisiting familiar places and wandering the streets of my old neighborhoods. Cynthia took up the challenge and accompanied me down Avenida Santa Fe over to the heart of Recoleta. I wanted to stop in at El Ataneo, the theatre-turned-bookstore that represents the well-read, literary culture of this intellectual city. I love browsing there and taking in the attractive architecture.

Buenos Aires, Argentina: Bosques de Palermo
Enjoying the Sun in the Bosques de Palermo, Buenos Aires

While it was rainy for most of my trip, the sun came out on Sunday afternoon and I took advantage of the pleasant weather to wander through my old neighboorhood in Recoleta, as you see above, down to Plaza Italia and the extensive green parks of the Bosques de Recoleta.

Buenos Aires, Argentina: Bosques de Palermo
Sunday Traffic in the Bosques de Palermo, Buenos Aires

Cynthia and Alejandro joined me for a sunset stroll around the lake at the Rosedal, prolonging the relaxation of the afternoon’s slow pace.

Buenos Aires, Argentina: Bosques de Palermo
Sunset at Parque Rosedal, Bosques de Palermo, Buenos Aires

We also headed to the Planetario, which I actually think I had never visited, and I got to see the colorful light show on the dome of this structure.

Buenos Aires, Argentina: Bosques de Palermo
Planetario, Buenos Aires

On my last day in Argentina, I headed to Palermo Viejo to take in the murals and graffiti that pop up all along these residential blocks and to do a little browsing and shopping.

Views from Buenos Aires, Argentina
Colorful Mural in Palermo Viejo, Buenos Aires

While I didn’t come across quite as much street art as on previous trips, perhaps because of the route I took, I did appreciate some of the messages in the graffiti, like that in the photo below, which reads “Here no one gives up,” which symbolizes the Argentine spirit of continuing forward.

Views from Buenos Aires, Argentina: Palermo Viejo
Graffiti in Palermo Viejo, Buenos Aires

After sufficiently wandering the streets and shops of Palermo, I headed back to a bright cafe I’d passed earlier in the day to enjoy another of my favorite Argentine traditions, that of sitting in a café, enjoying a sweet treat with tea, and reading a book.

Buenos Aires, Argentina: Ninina Bakery
Attractive Interior of Ninina Bakery, Palermo Viejo, Buenos Aires

I ended up being super pleased with my decision as Ninina Bakery emphasizes simple, clean ingredients. They even put a bowl of unrefined sugar on your table to sweeten your drink. I opted for a pot of chai tea and some ginger pear scones.

Buenos Aires, Argentina: Ninina Bakery
Tea and Scones at Ninina Bakery, Palermo Viejo, Buenos Aires

I really enjoyed my wanderings through my old neighborhoods, Palermo and Recoleta, and checking out new and old businesses. The city still has it.

Celebrating a Wedding Argentine-Style

A photo posted by Kim Dodge (@blueskylimit) on

The Happy Couple!

Of course, I have to mention the whole reason I made this trip: to celebrate the wedding of the lovely couple, Alejandra and Diego, two dear friends. This was actually my first ever non-American style wedding so it was interesting to compare the different customs in the ceremony and reception.

Buenos Aires, Argentina: La Boda!
Time for the Wedding Reception!

Buenos Aires, Argentina: La Boda!
Posing with Friends at the Wedding

The main difference is that the wedding takes place at night, so the reception starts later and goes until nearly dawn! In order to keep the festive spirit going, there is a moment of “carnaval” where everyone puts on masks, glow bracelets, and necklaces, plays with colorful sabers,and gets covered in confetti!

Buenos Aires, Argentina: La Boda!
Time to Dance! Hoy se baila!

There is also a sweets table late into the party to give people more energy to keep going, and at the end of the night, it is time for some restorative pizza after so much dancing!

Buenos Aires, Argentina: Santos Lugares
Mural at Santos Lugares, Buenos Aires

Because the wedding was in the greater province of Buenos Aires, not in the capital itself, I stayed with a friend of Diego’s, who took me to see the Santuario de Lourdes at Santos Lugares, a site of pilgrimage for many a believer. I appreciated the colorful murals outside the sacred grounds and the fancy cathedral.

A photo posted by Kim Dodge (@blueskylimit) on

Santuario de Lourdes, Santos Lugares, Buenos Aires

After my trip to Buenos Aires, I realized that the city still pulses with the vital energy that it has always had, and through and through the city is a cultured one. Porteños are always reading, going to the movies, arguing about politics, and checking out art exhibits. My friends claimed that Buenos Aires is more dangerous than it used to be, but thankfully, I have no proof of that and felt just as comfortable as I used to!

All things considered, I still love Buenos Aires and could even see myself living there again someday if the opportunity presents itself. Now that I live nearby, I hope to visit more frequently and take in the inspiration of the city and its residents.

Border Crossing Stories: Mendoza, Argentina to Santiago, Chile

Views from the Ride Between Mendoza, Argentina and Santiago, Chile
Amazing Views of the Andes from the Bus Between Mendoza and Santiago

During my week in Mendoza, I’d come to the tough conclusion that this city of wine set among the high Andes would be my last stop in Argentina.  I’d originally hoped to revisit my former home, Buenos Aires, and spend time with my porteño friends, but after hearing horror stories about how dangerous the capital had become, I decided to save both time and money and head back to Chile to get to know Santiago.

Views from the Ride Between Mendoza, Argentina and Santiago, Chile Views from the Ride Between Mendoza, Argentina and Santiago, Chile
Blue Rivers and Lakes Leaving Mendoza, Perfect for White Water Rafting

I woke up early to leave for the bus terminal, where I’d bought a ticket for a 10AM departure.  I figured this would allow me to cross the border before it got too busy and arrive in Santiago before dusk.  As I was checking out of the hostel, the receptionist at Hostel Empedrado asked me if I had exchanged contact info with my Canadian friends, who had left earlier that morning.  I hadn’t, but, curious, I asked why.

As it turned out, they had accidentally forgotten their video camera under the bed and she wondered if I could return it to them.  (More proof of this hostel going above and beyond!)  I suggested she send them an email with my contact information, and agreed to take the camera with me to Santiago.  After all, they had lost most of their possessions when they were robbed in Buenos Aires: I wanted to make sure they got reunited with their video camera!

Views from the Ride Between Mendoza, Argentina and Santiago, Chile
Pretty Pink Rocks and Blue Skies on the Way to the Border of Argentina and Chile

I said goodbye to my new favorite Argentine hostel and headed to the bus terminal.  I had a decent amount of Argentine pesos left, and frantically purchased alfajores, chocolate, and other snacks to unload as many pesos as I could.  I couldn’t find a souvenir shop near my bus platform, or else I would have walked away with some cute Argentine flag pins or something.  I hung on to a few Argentine pesos in case I needed them at the border crossing.  In retrospect, I should have spent all my Argentine pesos, as they are virtually worthless outside the country; I changed them for a fourth of their original value back in Peru!

Views from the Ride Between Mendoza, Argentina and Santiago, Chile
View of the Andes on the Way to the Border Between Argentina and Chile

This border crossing journey was much more calm and organized than the trip between San Pedro de Atacama and Salta; this is one of the most popular routes between Argentina and Chile and it works like a well-oiled machine.

Views from the Ride Between Mendoza, Argentina and Santiago, Chile Views from the Ride Between Mendoza, Argentina and Santiago, Chile
A Snowy Welcome to Chile

So well, in fact, that I don’t remember much about the journey, except that we sat for quite a while in the line at the border and the bus got nice and toasty.  As you can see from the photos above, the route passes through the super blue rivers and lakes of the high Andes, where there are plenty of options for whitewater rafting and other adventure sports.  On another visit, I’d love to stay outside the city of Mendoza in one of these towns nestled in the Andes.  You can tell that the scenery along this route is seriously gorgeous because I got these awesome photos from inside a moving bus!

Views from the Ride Between Mendoza, Argentina and Santiago, Chile
Amazing Clouds Over the Andes near the Chile/Argentina Border

Paso Internacional Los Libertadores is an easy border crossing, with both of the Argentine and Chilean immigration posts located inside the same building, making it surprisingly efficient.  Unlike Paso Jama, they also have the equipment to clear away the snow that falls consistently at such a high altitude.  Interestingly, six weeks after I crossed the border, it got hit with such a major snowstorm that it, too, closed!

Views from the Ride Between Mendoza, Argentina and Santiago, Chile Views from the Ride Between Mendoza, Argentina and Santiago, Chile
Views of the Snow-Covered Andes from the Chilean Side of the Border

While the route to the border from Mendoza is fairly uneventful, the descent to Santiago takes you along a series of impressive switchbacks, leading to constantly changing views of the mountains.  Chile’s ski resorts are nestled somewhere in the Andes near this route.

Views from the Ride Between Mendoza, Argentina and Santiago, Chile
Getting Closer to Santiago and the Chilean Vineyards

As you continue to descend towards Santiago, you enter Chile’s wine producing region, almost equally as famous as Mendoza.  The hills changed to greens and burnished reds and browns, reminders that it was, in fact, winter in the region, even though we’d left the snow-covered high Andes.

Views from the Ride Between Mendoza, Argentina and Santiago, Chile
Speeding Past Chile’s Wine Country En Route to Santiago

I stared out the window at the expanses of vineyards that we continued to pass.  If I hadn’t just done a full tour of the wineries of Mendoza, I would have been tempted to explore the beautiful countryside (and drink more wine).

Views from the Ride Between Mendoza, Argentina and Santiago, Chile
Foothills of the Andes on the Chilean Side

At this point, we were getting closer to Santiago and leaving the Andes.  Once again, I saw those familiar Andean foothills, covered in green brush and vegetation.

Views from the Ride Between Mendoza, Argentina and Santiago, Chile
Sunset En Route to Santiago

We’d lost an hour crossing the border (and time zones), and the sun disappeared from sight while we continued our journey towards the capital city.  With the winter clouds in the sky, it made for a truly impressive sunset.  This is still one of my favorite sunset pictures, captured from the window of a moving bus!

Views from the Ride Between Mendoza, Argentina and Santiago, Chile
Pink Sunset Somewhere in the Suburbs of Santiago, Chile

As we approached Santiago, we entered its suburbs and hit the afterwork traffic you should certainly expect on a Friday evening.  I had already put my D40 away, but looked out the window to see this crazy pink sunset.  If you can believe it, I took the above photo with an iPod touch!  I couldn’t let these pink colors disappear into memory. 🙂  This ended up being the last clear sky I saw for a few days, so it was well worth documenting.

Finally, we arrived to the bus station in Santiago, which is located in the midst of a major transportation hub.  All the Chileans on my bus were complaining about the location of the bus terminal in the center of the city.  We spent an extra hour inching along city blocks during the rush hour commute.  By the time the bus got there, I was antsy to get off the bus and stretch my legs.  I quickly changed some dollars into Chilean pesos and eventually found a taxi to take me to my friend Francisca’s house in Providencia.

Since I’d had no way to call Fran to let her know I was running late, she had generously left the key to her apartment with her doorman and a note for me to make myself at home in her adorable one bedroom apartment until she returned from a yoga class.  I took the opportunity to make some tea, stretch, and recover from yet another bus journey.  When she arrived, we poured ourselves some Chilean wine, fixed some snacks, and excitedly caught up on a couple years of life until 1AM, when I was too tired to keep talking.  This was my first exposure to the famed Chilean hospitality, and I knew I was in for a great week in Santiago.

Recommendations for Border Crossing Between Mendoza, Argentina and Santiago, Chile:

  • Buy your ticket in advance if you’re planning on traveling over the weekend, as I did, to guarantee a seat by the window.  Sit on the right side of the bus if you want to watch the river go by.
  • Leave as early as possible.  I left at 10AM and I probably should have left earlier to avoid rush hour traffic in Santiago.  The border can get really busy with all the buses and cars passing through.
  • Spend all of your Argentine pesos before leaving!  Argentine pesos have very little value outside of the country and you will get more for your money if you spend them on souvenirs and snacks before leaving.  It’s a good idea to bring some snacks with you for the ~eight hour journey, but keep in mind that Chile has strict rules about what kind of food can cross its borders.  Be prepared to eat any fruit, cheese, meats, etc. before you cross the border.  They x-ray all luggage looking for food.
  • If you still have Argentine pesos, change them at the currency exchange station at the immigration post.  Exchange rates are always best at the border.  You can wait until you get to the bus terminal in Santiago, but you won’t get the best rates there.  The border is also a good place to change dollars into Chilean pesos.
[Mendoza, Argentina to Santiago, Chile: August 2, 2013]

Mendoza, Argentina: Wine Tasting at Bodega Catena Zapata and Belasco de Baquedano in Luján de Cuyo

View from Bodega Catena Zapata, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza
View from Bodega Catena Zapata, Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza

A few years ago, I picked up a somewhat pricey Argentine Cabernet Sauvignon out of nostalgia for South America.  When we poured the wine at our family holiday party, we were impressed by the quality of the wine and its delicious flavor.  Since then, it has become a family tradition to buy a Catena Malbec or Cabernet Sauvignon each year to celebrate being together at the holidays.

This is how Bodega Catena Zapata became my favorite winemaker.  When I decided to return to Argentina, I knew I would visit the winery and taste the wines right where they came from.  At first, it seemed challenging to get out to the winery on my limited budget, as it is located in Luján de Cuyo, but far from the town center.  However, I’d asked one of the guides in Chacras de Coria for advice, and he’d told me that it was totally possible to get out there using a combination of public transportation and taxis.

Wine Tasting in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina
Views While Driving Down Cobos in Luján de Cuyo, Argentina

On my last day in Mendoza, I woke up early, ready for my solo journey to Luján de Cuyo.  I was planning on catching a bus to Luján de Cuyo’s main plaza, where I had been assured that I could find a taxi to take me out to Bodega Catena Zapata.  I waited at the bus stop for quite a while, looking for the appropriate bus; there are many routes that go around the Luján de Cuyo region, and I needed a specific one to get me to the right place.  I finally spotted what I thought was the right bus and got on, asking the bus driver if the route went to my intended destination.  Instead of being helpful, he laughed at me for being a foreigner, assured me it did, and dismissed my concerns.  (See what I mean about Argentines not being particularly friendly to tourists?)

As you can imagine, I was not, in fact, on the right bus.  However, I was at least heading in the right direction.  As we approached Chacras de Coria, I recognized the town center and asked the bus driver once again if the bus would finish its route at the main terminal of Luján de Cuyo.  A little sheepish, he finally informed me that this bus did not go to the main station.  As it turned out I was not alone; there were two other people who had also taken the wrong bus, and he dropped us off at a bus stop in Chacras with some vague instructions as to what bus to wait for.

At this point, it was getting very close to my scheduled 11AM tour, and I nervous I would miss my chance to visit Bodega Catena Zapata.  I had no way to call the winery to tell them I was running late.  I knew I needed to somehow find a taxi to take me out to Bodega Catena Zapata.  As I was waiting to ask the clerk a corner store for advice, I spotted a taxi passing by and flagged it down.  I told him where I wanted to go, and he agreed to take me out there, warning me that it would be an expensive fare!  At this point, money was no object and I just wanted to get there; we agreed that it was complete luck that he’d been passing through Chacras de Coria, as it is not a place where you usually can easily find a taxi.

Finally, I was on my way again and I was able to relax and enjoy the ride, astounded by the appearance of the snow-capped Andes along the route.  As it turned out, the taxi cost $130 Argentine pesos, or about $23 USD, which was not too bad.  And in another stroke of good luck, even though I arrived about 25 minutes late, so had my tour companions, a couple from Brazil.  They’d gotten a bit lost driving through the back roads of Luján de Cuyo and had only been waiting for five minutes before I got there.  Our guide was a trilingual Argentine who spoke Spanish, English, and Portuguese fluently; you could tell she was very highly educated and well versed in the field of wine.  We were in for an excellent tour, conducted in a combination of Spanish, English, and Portuguese, as each of us had different linguistic strengths.

Wine Tasting at Catena Zapata in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina
Wine Barrels Inside Bodega Catena Zapata, Luján de Cuyo, Argentina

Bodega Catena Zapata is a historical winery often credited with putting the Mendoza winemaking region on the map.  While Argentines have always had a strong affinity for wines, local wines used to be imbibed for their intoxicating properties, not for their complexity of flavors.  When Nicolás Catena and his daughter Laura took over the family business, they brought with them experience from the Napa and Sonoma regions of California and a strong desire to produce high quality wines.

Wine Tasting at Catena Zapata in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina Wine Tasting at Catena Zapata in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina Wine Tasting at Catena Zapata in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina
American Wine Aging Barrels; A Very Special Wine Vintage; Bodega Catena Zapata’s Wine Vault

As we toured the winery, our guide explained the intricacies of the Catena Zapata method, including using both American and French barrels and producing several different lines for both the Argentine and international markets, tailored to the tastes and preferences of their consumers.  The bottle pictured above is one of the most valued wines in their wine vault, as it is a particularly special vintage from one of their highest quality lines.

Wine Tasting at Catena Zapata in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina
Views of the Andes from Bodega Catena Zapata, Luján de Cuyo, Argentina

After touring the winery, we climbed to the top of the building to look out over the vineyards, which stretched out for acres.  Can you imagine how gorgeous this would be during growing season, with green leaves everywhere, protecting the amazing fruit?

Wine Tasting at Catena Zapata in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina Wine Tasting at Catena Zapata in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina
Views from Inside Bodega Catena Zapata; Enjoying a Tasting of Catena Alta Wines

Afterwards, we sat down in a comfortable lounge area for our premium tasting.  Our talented guide explained the guidelines for appropriate tasting to us in great detail, encouraging us to observe the color of the wine, showing us how to smell it, and helping us distinguish differences between the first and second sip.  Beyond the educational opportunity, I was so excited to try wines I could never afford to purchase back home.

Wine Tasting at Catena Zapata in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina
2011 Catena Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, Produced for the International Market

Afterwards, we headed to the gift store, where you could see all the different brands produced by Catena.  The store sells both the wines produced for the Argentine palate and those sold abroad.  I had actually not been able to find Catena Zapata wines in Mendoza because they are sold under a different label.  Above are the entry-level wines which are most commonly available in the United States.

Wine Tasting at Catena Zapata in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina
2009 Catena Alta Cabernet Sauvignon, the Next Level of International Wines

This wine, Catena Alta, is the next level of the international wines, a step above the Catena line.  I really enjoyed these wines in the tasting and was so tempted to buy a bottle, but I was worried it wouldn’t survive my bus journey the next day.  Instead, I left with a Catena Zapata bottle opener as a souvenir of the experience.

Wine Tasting at Catena Zapata in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina Wine Tasting at Catena Zapata in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina
Views of the Vineyards Around Bodega Catena Zapata

My Brazilian companions had kindly offered to drive me to my next stop, Belasco de Baquedano, which was just down the road but not really the walkable distance I’d been told.  While they purchased lots of wine glasses and bottle to take back to Brazil, I wandered around taking pictures of the vineyard.

Wine Tasting at Catena Zapata in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina
The Main Building of Bodega Catena Zapata, Luján de Cuyo, Argentina

Interestingly, Nicolás Catena had decided to construct the main building on the vineyard in a distinctive pyramid shape inspired by Mayan architecture.  I find this choice very interesting, considering the equally rich history of the Andes region where the vineyard is located. 😛

Wine Tasting at Catena Zapata in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina
Leaving Bodega Catena Zapata with the Andes in the Distance

My new Brazilian friends took me back along Cobos to Belasco de Baquedano, chatting with me all the way in a combination of Portuguese and English.  We talked about having dinner together back in Mendoza, but didn’t manage to touch base again.

Wine Tasting at Belasco de Baquedano in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina
Views from Belasco de Baquedano Winery in Luján de Cuyo, Argentina

I arrived to Belasco de Baquedano just before my 2PM tour and tasting, and they asked me to wait a few minutes.  I went outside to explore the grounds and take in the vineyards.  This also gave me a chance to have a snack in the sunshine; I’d brought along a picnic lunch.  Belasco de Baquedano actually has a fine dining restaurant on site, but I hadn’t been able to find any information on whether they offer a vegetarian option; as it turns out, they do – I know for next time!

Wine Tasting at Belasco de Baquedano in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina
Views of the Belasco de Baquedano Vineyards with the Andes in the Distance

Belasco de Baquedano shares the same gorgeous view of this corridor of the Andes.  While there are lots of vineyards around this area, few people actually live here; I learned that most of the winery employees live in Mendoza or in Chacras de Coria, driving or taking the one public bus that passes through here each day.

Wine Tasting at Belasco de Baquedano in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina
Views from Belasco de Baquedano, Luján de Cuyo, Argentina

I enjoyed exploring the grounds of Belasco de Baquedano on my own, as it was quiet and gave me a moment to process the fact that I was living yet another of my travel dreams.  The winery is a relative newcomer to the scene and has a modern approach to winemaking, using high tech machines and techniques.  However, it too tries to conjure up a sense of history, and its name reflects its Spanish (from Spain) heritage, including the traditional spelling of Belasco, which is usually written as Velasco in Latin America.

Wine Tasting at Belasco de Baquedano in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina
Views from Belasco de Baquedano, Luján de Cuyo, Argentina

I had scheduled a tour at Belasco de Baquedano based on the recommendation of a guide in Chacras de Coria; he told me that they had an aroma room, which was a great way to learn more about the different notes an experienced taster could distinguish in fine wines.  After having learned so much about tasting at Bodega Catena Zapata, I really appreciated the chance to learn more about the flavors and scents in wine.

Wine Tasting at Belasco de Baquedano in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina Wine Tasting at Belasco de Baquedano in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina
Swinto, One of the Wines Produced at Belasco de Baquedano; Tasting Their Malbecs

As it turned out, I was the only person on my tour, so I had a private guide through the winery and aroma room.  She seemed a little surprised that I wanted the tour in Spanish, but said that a lot of foreigners find it fun to practice their Spanish.  I just thought I would learn more that way. 😉  Like Bodega Catena Zapata, Belasco de Baquedano offers several different brands of wine at various price points.

After finishing my tour, it was time for the tasting at the attractive wooden bar.  At this moment, a Brazilian woman showed up with her son, insisting that she had scheduled a tour for this late hour.  My guide decided to take her on a whirlwind tour, and left her colleague in charge of my tasting.  This ended up being another blessing, as this woman was very friendly and showed me some aroma cards that I could use to try to pick out the flavors in each of the vintages.  My wine education continued and I feel like my ability to distinguish flavors in wine really improved as a result of this practice.

As I wrapped up my tasting, the original guide returned and I asked her for advice on how to get back to Mendoza.  Originally, I was going to call another taxi to take me back to the city center, but they informed me that a local bus would pass by in the next half hour or so.  If it didn’t, one of them would give me a ride back to Chacras de Coria or Mendoza.

Wine Tasting in Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina
Views of the Andes on the Way Back to Mendoza from Luján de Cuyo

I decided to wander out to the main road, Cobos, to try my luck at the local bus.  As I was walking down the long gravel driveway, the Brazilian woman passed me in her rental car and asked me if I wanted a ride back to Mendoza.  Saved by Brazilians twice in one day!  As it turned out, her English was stronger than her Spanish (and than my Portuguese), so we chatted about her work in Brazil and her visit to Mendoza for her husband’s work.  I tried to speak with her son in Portuguese a little bit, too.  She dropped me off right at Plaza Italia, as they were staying at one of the top hotels in Mendoza.

After such a lovely day, I headed back to the Hostel Empedrado to prepare one more big dinner, chat with my hostel buddies, pack my bags, and finish the last of my wine before leaving for Santiago early the next day.  I had had an amazing week in Mendoza, but visiting my favorite winemaker was definitely an example of saving the best for last. 🙂

Recommendations for Luján de Cuyo, Argentina:

  • You absolutely can visit Luján de Cuyo independently, but you need to ask around until you find someone who can tell you how to get there.  Your best best is to ask the locals who work in the wineries as they know more about getting around the wineries than the average mendocino.  There is a local bus that runs down Cobos, which is the road where many of the top winemakers are located, once in the morning, and once in the afternoon, but I couldn’t find anyone who knew its schedule.
  • There are many local buses that go to the Luján de Cuyo region from the city of Mendoza, but you want the one that stops near the main terminal in the center of Luján de Cuyo, where the buses are serviced.  From there, you should be able to find a taxi to take you out to the Cobos street.  Depending on your budget, you may want to consider negotiating with a taxi driver to take you around for the day, rent a car, or take a personalized tour arranged through a local agency.
  • I highly recommend visiting Bodega Catena Zapata, especially if you’re already a fan of their wines from trying them back home.  The premium tasting was $100 Argentine pesos in August 2013 but was worth every penny.  You can tell that the guides working at this winery are the best of the best.  The scenery is also gorgeous.
  • Belasco de Baquedano is located on the same road as Bodgeta Catena Zapata and has a fine dining restaurant and an aroma room.  While I enjoyed their wines, I think their real draw is the unique experience they offer.  Their tour and tasting was $69 Argentine pesos in August 2013.
  • Personally, I think visiting two high caliber wineries was enough for one day.  I scheduled one for 11AM and another for 2PM and I was able to enjoy both tastings at a very relaxed pace.
  • Here are some very useful maps of the Luján de Cuyo region, including a detailed map and list of all of the winemakers in the region (the map at the top of the page – here’s a link to the PDF download).
[Luján de Cuyo, Mendoza, Argentina: August 1, 2013]

Mendoza, Argentina: Relaxing in Parque San Martín and at the Termas de Cacheuta

Views from Mendoza, Argentina Views from Mendoza, Argentina
Plaza Italia and Parque San Martín, Mendoza, Argentina

After some busy, active days on horseback and wine tasting on bike, I needed some time to relax and plan the next leg of my journey. Originally, I’d hoped to visit my friends in Buenos Aires, but I continued to hear horror stories about how much the city had changed in the last few years and how dangerous it had become. Two Canadians staying in my hostel in Mendoza had been robbed of all of their things inside their hostel in Buenos Aires, and it was all caught on the hostel’s surveillance videotape!

They had put down their large backpacks while waiting to check in to their hostel. The reception area was busy, hectic, and understaffed, and there were a lot of guests waiting around. Four thieves dressed in normal street clothes had walked in, hoisted on the Canadians’ backpacks, and walked out. Luckily, my friends had still been wearing their small backpacks with all of their most valuable possessions, and they had also bought travel insurance to help them replace what had been stolen. Surprisingly, they even had a sense of humor about the situation, and acknowledged that it had helped them become very minimalist during their long-term backpacking trip!

I spent a relaxing morning in the hostel researching what I still wanted to do while in Mendoza and thinking about my next destination. I had originally wanted to go hiking in the area, but there weren’t enough interested guests to send out an excursion. I’d thought about going rafting or rock climbing, but the cost was more than I really wanted to spend so early on my travels. In the end, I decided to visit the hot springs and thermal baths in Cacheuta, an easy journey from Mendoza. But first, I chose to explore the city on foot, wandering through its streets en route to Parque San Martín, Mendoza’s massive multi-use public park.

Views from Mendoza, Argentina
Parque San Martín, Mendoza, Argentina

One of the reasons I went there was nostalgia; I’d taken photos with my friends under these archways in 2002! But mainly I went because I wanted to be outside in the fresh air and sunshine, perhaps to read my book by the river. As I wandered, I spotted an outdoor dance class and saw a sign for yoga in the park. I saw tons of runners and bikers enjoying the wide roads with no cars on them. It was a lovely way to spend the afternoon and experience Mendoza’s version of winter.

Views from Cacheuta, Mendoza, Argentina
Gorgeous Scenery En Route to Cacheuta, Mendoza, Argentina

The next day, I got up early, excited to relax in the hot springs of Cacheuta.  I ended up tagging along with two older American friends whom I’d met at the hostel.  However, we left a little later than I would have liked, ended up getting stuck in traffic on our way to the bus terminal, and almost missed the last morning departure time!  Luckily, we ran through the terminal, found the right bus just before it departed, and were able to get our tickets on board.

The 90-minute ride through the landscape of Mendoza province is absolutely gorgeous.  This photo of the hills only hints at the actual beauty of the ride.  It is magical passing though these mountains.  Our bus was nearly empty and I kept jumping around to each side of the bus to look at the scenery.

Views from Cacheuta, Mendoza, Argentina Views from Cacheuta, Mendoza, Argentina Views from Cacheuta, Mendoza, Argentina
Old Cacheuta Train Station; Views from the Termas de Cacheuta (Hot Springs)

Cacheuta is a very small town with lots of restaurants and resorts catering to the tourist that just wants to relax.  They still have the railroad sign marking the town, even though the trains no longer run through here and the depot has been converted into a restaurant.  It is easy to find Termas de Cacheuta; just wander along the main road until you see the biggest spa complex, or ask for directions.

Views from Cacheuta, Mendoza, Argentina
Hanging Out in the Termas de Cacheuta

Termas de Cacheuta is comprised of about seven different thermal pools, some inside a heated greenhouse-like room, and others outside in the sunshine, as you see in my photos.  You are encouraged to enjoy the baths in order of warmth, working up to the almost painfully hot indoor bath.  I spent most of my time enjoying the outdoor pools on my own and chatting with the other guests; they’re always amused to meet an American who speaks so much Spanish.  Later, I inched my way into the super hot pool, trying to allow the purification to take place.  I don’t understand much about the therapeutic benefits of thermal baths, but I certainly like the idea!

Views from Cacheuta, Mendoza, Argentina
Hills Surrounding Cacheuta, Mendoza, Argentina

After a couple of hours of lounging, I was restless and wanted to wander about Cacheuta.  I walked along the railway tracks, taking in the burnished browns of the Andean hills surrounding this valley.  I poked around in some of the stores along the main drag and cobbled together a light, vegetarian-friendly lunch of figs and nuts. 😉

Views from Cacheuta, Mendoza, Argentina
Footbridge in Cacheuta, Mendoza, Argentina

I also crossed this suspended footbridge connecting the residential part of Cacheuta with the commerical side.  There’s a paved road nearby that runs parallel, but this footbridge was way more fun!

At this point, I’d exhausted all of the options in Cacheuta and was ready to head back to Mendoza.  Back at the bus terminal, I bought my ticket onwards: I’d finally decided to head to Santiago to explore Chile’s capital and spend some time with former students-turned-friends.  However, I still had one last day planned in Mendoza, and it was an exciting one: I was heading out to Luján de Cuyo to visit my favorite winemaker!

Recommendations for Mendoza and Cacheuta, Argentina:

  • Plaza Italia is the main plaza in Mendoza, and is definitely worth a visit.  It has a gorgeous fountain, lots of trees, and plenty of benches and grass to relax in.  There is often an artisan fair around the edges of the plaza, if you’d like to buy handmade artwork and jewelry from talented Argentines.
  • Parque San Martín is a great place to spend a morning or afternoon.  You could also go running there or take one of the free classes offered in the park.
  • Buses to Cacheuta run from the main bus terminal in Mendoza and leave at 9AM, 10:30AM, and 1:30PM.  They return at 3:45PM, 6:30PM, and 9:20PM.  There may be additional service around the holidays – check the schedules posted inside the bus terminal.  In Cacheuta, the schedule is posted in the office window along the main road.  The buses are located in the central part of the terminal.  You can buy your tickets in advance or on the bus.  The ride is about 90 minutes long.  The road trip bus ticket was $23 Argentine pesos in 2013.  I thought leaving at 10:30 and returning at 3:45 was more than enough time in Cacheuta.
  • Most people who visit Cacheuta go to Termas de Cacheuta, as it is very modern and attractive.  There are lockers and showers inside and various necessary items for sale or rental.  There are also picnic tables for enjoying food with your friends and family, so think about packing a lunch and making a day of it!  As mentioned above, there a number of thermal baths of all temperatures and some reserved for only adults, so you’re likely to find a pool that is less crowded and comfortable for you.  A one-day adult entry cost $55 Argentine pesos in July 2013.
  • You can save a lot of money by bringing your own lunch or snacks and eating at the many picnic tables around the Termas.  There are a number of restaurants lining the main streets but they are definitely priced for tourists.
[Mendoza, Argentina: July 30-31, 2013]

Mendoza, Argentina: Biking Around the Wineries of Chacras de Coria

Wine Tastings in Chacras de Coria Wine Tastings in Chacras de Coria Wine Tastings in Chacras de Coria
Views from Lagarde Winery, Chacras de Coria, Mendoza, Argentina

After my awesomely hectic re-acquaintance with Mendoza, I needed a day to recover, do some laundry, find a bank, drink mate, and hang out with other guests.  My hostel hosted a weekly pizza party, where they brought in a chef to make a variety of pizzas and kept them coming until we were seriously full.  Naturally, this attracted a lots of guests and led to a festive, social atmosphere.  I ended up talking to two British girls who planned on touring one of the wine regions of Mendoza on bike.  While there are many different tour agencies that offer to guide you, they planned on going independently: taking a local bus out to the suburbs and renting bikes directly from the bike outfitter.  I quickly decided to join them.

We left Mendoza early the next morning and boarded a local bus that goes to Chacras de Coria, a small village located in one of the main wine regions in Mendoza.  The girls had heard about Baccus Bikes, so we headed there to rent bikes.  The woman staffing the agency turned out to be the owner’s wife, and she was incredibly helpful and patient in mapping out her suggestions and providing alternatives.  She emphasized safety and suggested roads that were less likely to lead to a flat tire or into a more isolated neighborhood.  After discussing our game plan, we headed to our first stop, Bodega Lagarde.

Wine Tastings in Chacras de Coria
Just a Sample of Lagarde’s Various Brands and Vintages, Mendoza, Argentina

Most of the wineries have deals with the various bike rental agencies and give you a discounted tasting, which usually includes a tour.  Baccus also tries to call ahead and make reservations for lunch in case they are necessary, which is really helpful.  As we were waiting for our tour at Lagarde to begin, I spotted an American whom I’d met at the Salta bus station while waiting for our bus to Cafayate, which is one of those random travel experiences I always find amusing and fun.  This was fortuitous for me:  I ended up tagging along with her and her friend, as the girls I’d come with wanted to visit far-off wineries on more dangerous roads, and I wanted to take it easy and enjoy my day. 😉

After a tour of Lagarde’s winery, an explanation of their approach to wine production, and peeking at their vineyards, brown and dormant in winter, it was time for our first tasting.  We all opted for the deluxe tasting to try some of the high-end wines.  When in Mendoza, you have to take advantage of these opportunities!  I liked their wines and ended up buying a bottle to enjoy back at the hostel; I later bought another bottle in Lima. 🙂

Wine Tastings in Chacras de Coria
The Andes as Seen from Chacras de Coria, Mendoza, Argentina

After saying goodbye to the British girls, we headed back along the main road to Clos de Chakra, which gave me a chance to appreciate how gorgeous the Andes were in this region.  It doesn’t get much better than snow-capped peaks in the distance.

Wine Tastings in Chacras de Coria
Red Wine Flight at Clos de Chacras, Mendoza, Argentina

Clos de Chacras is often recommended because it is one of the most historical winemakers in the area, and because they have a lovely restaurant.  You are encouraged to order a flight of wine to accompany your meal.  We ended up having a snack instead of a meal, which meant that these very generous pours of wine hit us hard!

Wine Tastings in Chacras de Coria
Views from Clos de Chacras, Mendoza, Argentina

Luckily, we still had a tour ahead of us.  Our tour guide was my favorite of the three wineries we visited that day; he had studied winemaking in northern California and spoke English and Spanish fluently.  He was also down-to-earth and friendly, happy to show us around the winery and tell us interesting stories.

Wine Tastings in Chacras de Coria Wine Tastings in Chacras de CoriaWhile the exact details of the winemaking process have escaped me in the year that has passed since this tour, I really appreciated learning more about the history of this particular vineyard.

After leaving Clos de Chacras, we stopped in at a small store along the way, where I was able to get a vegetarian quiche from a local pasta maker. I was super hungry and needed some food to balance out all the Argentine reds!

Wine Tastings in Chacras de Coria
Wine-Inspired Art at Bodega Pulmary, Mendoza, Argentina

From there, we moved on to Bodega Pulmary, one of the newest arrivals to Clos de Chakras, known for its organic wines.  Our host was actually part of the family that owns the vineyard and told us how he had left his work as a lawyer to join his family in this endeavor.  The tasting was different here; he actually poured wine from the massive vats directly into our glasses to so we could sample the differences as the wines aged and matured.  The art pictured above was made by a well-known Argentine cartoonist and is one of the showpieces of their winery.

A La Antigua, Chacras de Coria, Mendoza, Argentina A La Antigua, Chacras de Coria, Mendoza, Argentina
Various Tastings at A La Antigua, Chacras de Coria, Mendoza, Argentina

Finally, I said goodbye to my American friends, as I wanted to check out the homemade jams and jellies and infused oils, vinegars, and liqueurs at A La Antigua, and they’d already visited first thing in the morning.  I timed it right and arrived about 20 minutes before a large tour group, which meant I could sample to my heart’s content.  I particularly enjoyed the homemade chocolate.

As the sun began to set, I biked back to the main plaza to return my bike and get directions on how to get back to Mendoza.  I managed to find the right bus and even to get off at the right stop, which made me feel very proud in my wine-influenced state.

All things considered, the self-guided wine tour on bike was a very budget-friendly choice, and I had a great time with my new American friends.  That said, I am not sure I would recommend biking as the best way to do a wine tour in this region.  As I am not a particularly heavy drinker, I was very cognizant of how much I was drinking and its effect on me, even pouring out wines I did not particularly care for.  While drivers are used to seeing tourists on bikes on the main roads, these roads are still highly transited by cars, which can be unnerving if you’re not a confident biker.  I might have a better time today after spending the summer biking around Boston. 🙂

Recommendations for Chacras de Coria, Mendoza, Argentina:

  • I would absolutely suggest that you rent bikes from Baccus as they were extremely helpful and personable.  I felt like they took care of their bikes and were concerned about our safety.
  • Make sure you have goals for your trip, such as how many wineries you’re going to visit.  I went on this trip without knowing anything about it, which was fine because I did not have high expectations and was happy to enjoy the experience.  If you are a wine lover, you may want to visit only the highest quality or most established wineries.
  • Of these three wineries, I thought Bodega Lagarde had the best wines, but Clos de Chacras had the most gorgeous location, including an outdoor patio, a fine dining restaurant, and a fascinating winery.
  • There are other parts of Mendoza besides Chacras de Coria that offer wine tours on bike, including Maipu.  This is a wonderful description of how to stay safe and maximize your time while biking around Maipu.  You may also arrange a bike tour with an official guide.
  • This a good description of the various types of wine-tasting experiences you can have around Mendoza.  I’ll talk about my experience wine-tasting in Luján de Cuyo in a future post.
[Mendoza, Argentina: July 28-29, 2013]

Mendoza, Argentina: Horseback Riding and Enjoying Life Gaucho-Style (with Wine and Music)

Horseback Riding, Relaxing, Wine, and Music Gaucho-Style in Mendoza, Argentina
Views from Horseback Riding near Mendoza, Argentina

In March 2002, I discovered something about myself that I had not suspected: I love solo travel.  I found this out because I booked an independent trip to Mendoza, Argentina, stayed in my first ever hostel, and met three awesome porteños (Argentines from Buenos Aires) who are still my friends over a decade later.  Visiting Mendoza in 2002 changed my life, sparked my wanderlust, and opened my mind to the relationships you can make through travel.

For these reasons, I was both excited and nervous to head back to Mendoza.  After a lackluster experience in Salta, I wasn’t sure how I would feel about this lovely city.  At the same time, I knew Mendoza attracts many more travelers than La Rioja and Tucumán, and I was ready for some socializing and more adventurous tourism, like horseback riding, rafting, and biking.  I was also excited to do some serious wine-tasting; in 2002, I didn’t drink, so I’d skipped the wineries, if you can believe it!

Horseback Riding, Relaxing, Wine, and Music Gaucho-Style in Mendoza, Argentina Horseback Riding, Relaxing, Wine, and Music Gaucho-Style in Mendoza, Argentina
Horseback Riding near Mendoza, Argentina

Immediately upon arrival in Mendoza, I was reassured; the city was just as lovely as I remembered it.  As always, I grilled my taxi driver for information on how the economic crisis had affected Mendoza, and learned that both the wine industry and regional tourism were booming, which had ensured Mendoza’s continued loveliness.

Upon arrival to Hostel Empedrado, I learned that they organized many tours, excursions, and in-hostel activities.  I was excited to finally have people to do things with, and booked a horseback riding tour the next day.

Horseback Riding, Relaxing, Wine, and Music Gaucho-Style in Mendoza, Argentina Horseback Riding, Relaxing, Wine, and Music Gaucho-Style in Mendoza, Argentina
Relaxing in the Andes near Mendoza, Argentina

As it turned out, there were just three of us that day, Monika from Germany, Jacob from the UK, and me, along with our lovely guide, Juan, and our driver.   Monika and Jacob both spoke Spanish pretty well, which was a relief for Juan and me, as he didn’t speak much English and I was tired of translating for free. 😉

We left Mendoza bright and early, heading for the foothills of the Andes.  The hostel has an agreement with one of the gauchos there and rents horses that are treated with respect.  We got settled on our horses and began our climb through the greenery of the hills of the Cuyo region.  The path was easy and scenic and we were able to appreciate our surroundings.  We paused near a stream to give our horses a break and relaxed in the branches of a massive tree.  This was Juan’s favorite spot, but he’d neglected to bring the traditional mate, opting for over-sweetened English tea which none of us drank. 😛

Horseback Riding, Relaxing, Wine, and Music Gaucho-Style in Mendoza, Argentina
Horseback Riding Near Mendoza, Argentina

After resting, we continued along our route, chatting, enjoying the rhythm of riding horses, and observing the changes in the vegetation as we ascended and descended in elevation.

Horseback Riding, Relaxing, Wine, and Music Gaucho-Style in Mendoza, Argentina Horseback Riding, Relaxing, Wine, and Music Gaucho-Style in Mendoza, Argentina
Horseback Riding, Relaxing, Wine, and Music Gaucho-Style in Mendoza, Argentina Horseback Riding, Relaxing, Wine, and Music Gaucho-Style in Mendoza, Argentina
Horseback Riding Near Mendoza, Argentina

On our way back to the ranch, where lunch was awaiting us, we galloped with our horses, always a thrilling experience for someone like me who only rides horses when traveling. I was especially glad I’d had some recent practice back in Salta!

Horseback Riding, Relaxing, Wine, and Music Gaucho-Style in Mendoza, Argentina
Horseback Riding, Relaxing, Wine, and Music Gaucho-Style in Mendoza, Argentina
Horseback Riding Near Mendoza, Argentina

As it turned out, I ended up getting injured on the ride, as my horse took off on a gallop as we passed some spiny branches on a low bush, gashing my shin. Juan felt terrible as he’d forgotten the first aid kit, but I took it all in stride, as I’m pretty injury-prone. 🙂

Horseback Riding, Relaxing, Wine, and Music Gaucho-Style in Mendoza, Argentina Horseback Riding, Relaxing, Wine, and Music Gaucho-Style in Mendoza, Argentina

Back on at the ranch, we sat down for our lunch, a typical Argentine parrilla (barbecue) with roasted vegetables and salad for me. 🙂  We played with the adorable dogs who vied for our attention and drank the red wine that Juan had brought to accompany our lunch.

Horseback Riding, Relaxing, Wine, and Music Gaucho-Style in Mendoza, Argentina
Adorable Dogs Near Mendoza, Argentina

It was turning out to be a relaxing afternoon of good conversation, cheap wine, and lots of laughter, and then Juan brought out the guitar for a sing-along.  I tried to accompany him, but our tastes in music are very different and I didn’t know too many of the songs he played.

Horseback Riding, Relaxing, Wine, and Music Gaucho-Style in Mendoza, Argentina Horseback Riding, Relaxing, Wine, and Music Gaucho-Style in Mendoza, Argentina
Enjoying an Afternoon of Wine and Music Near Mendoza, Argentina

Before long, it became clear that we were in for a treat.  We were soon joined by our driver, who had grown up in the Cuyo region.  While we were on our horses, he’d talked to our host and both men quickly realized that they had gone to school together!  They decided to serenade us with traditional songs from the Cuyo region.

Horseback Riding, Relaxing, Wine, and Music Gaucho-Style in Mendoza, Argentina Horseback Riding, Relaxing, Wine, and Music Gaucho-Style in Mendoza, Argentina Horseback Riding, Relaxing, Wine, and Music Gaucho-Style in Mendoza, Argentina
Gaucho Songs and Wine Near Mendoza, Argentina

Juan kept the wine flowing and informed us that the songs we were hearing were rare gaucho songs that few people know today.  We sat transfixed by the music, the intimacy of our gathering, and a relaxing wine haze.

You can hear one of the old gaucho songs in my video; I went crazy photographing and filming this magical experience.

Horseback Riding, Relaxing, Wine, and Music Gaucho-Style in Mendoza, Argentina Horseback Riding, Relaxing, Wine, and Music Gaucho-Style in Mendoza, Argentina
Juan Performing Magic Tricks Near Mendoza, Argentina

Speaking of magic, Juan is a street performer with an arsenal of tricks, which he demonstrated for us.  He even taught Monika one of his tricks on the way back to Mendoza. 🙂

Horseback Riding, Relaxing, Wine, and Music Gaucho-Style in Mendoza, Argentina Horseback Riding, Relaxing, Wine, and Music Gaucho-Style in Mendoza, Argentina Horseback Riding, Relaxing, Wine, and Music Gaucho-Style in Mendoza, Argentina
Music and Laughter Near Mendoza, Argentina

After we polished off the rest of the wine, we said goodbye to our gaucho friends and headed back to Mendoza.  I was adamant that we drink mate together at the hostel, and in my chatty state I invited a number of other guests to partake in this traditional Argentine experience.

Making Empanadas in Mendoza, Argentina
Making Empanadas at Hostel Empedrado, Mendoza, Argentina

Afterwards, I convinced Juan and Monika to make empanadas with me.  We taught Monika to fill and fold the empanadas, and she took some with her on her overnight bus ride to Buenos Aires.

But this lovely day was not over yet!  It was Saturday night and I was ready to embrace the Mendoza nightlife, so I rallied up a group from the hostel, including a group of awesome Irish travelers who became my buddies over the next few days.  We headed to Por Acá for a night of dancing until nearly dawn; it was the perfect start to my week in Mendoza.

Recommendations for Mendoza, Argentina:

Stay at Hostel Empedrado or its sister hostel, Hostel Mora.  I thought Hostel Empedrado was the best hostel I stayed at in Argentina because of all the bonuses it offers for a very reasonable price (if you don’t believe me, believe these reviews).  There are two kitchens, a free laundry machine, plenty of space to hang your clothes to dry on the roof, a wine happy hour with free wine, wine tastings, comfortable common areas, good rooms, clean bathrooms with plenty of hot water, and awesome staff.  When I stayed there, they offered their own excursions, including the horseback riding one profiled above, so you could just arrange your trips with them.

[Mendoza, Argentina: July 26-27, 2013]

La Rioja, Argentina: Parque Nacional Talampaya and Parque Regional Ischigualasto (Valle de la Luna, San Juan)

Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya
Parque Nacional Talampaya, La Rioja, Argentina

When I lived in Argentina from July 2001 to August 2002, I managed to visit the majority of the country, discovering my love for travel and the beautiful, varied scenery of this very unique country.  Before moving back to the US, I bought a map of Argentina so that I could visualize all the different provinces I’d been to.  When I decided to head back to Argentina in 2013, I knew I wanted to visit San Juan’s Valle de la Luna (also known as Parque Regional Ischigualasto), which was another spot I had missed.  As I did my research, I realize that it made more sense to head to nearby La Rioja; that way, I could also visit Parque Nacional Talampaya.

Cathedral in La Rioja, Argentina Views fro La Rioja, ArgentinaI arrived in La Rioja before dawn, exhausted from lack of sleep on the very short journey from Tucumán.  I stalled at the bus station, waiting for my hostel to open at 7AM.  I chose to stay at Hostel del Sol, a slightly pricier but attractive new arrival to the budget travel scene.  As it turned out, the hostel was very quiet and not quite the place to meet other travelers, but I enjoyed chatting with the Argentines who worked there and finding out more about their lives.

La Rioja is a small, traditional city that still observes the siesta for several hours mid-afternoon, when the sun is strongest.  I took this time to wander around downtown La Rioja, checking out the major churches and cathedrals and getting a sense for the quiet lifestyle in this provincial capital.

Main Plaza, La Rioja, Argentina Views fro La Rioja, Argentina
Main Plaza of La Rioja; Paseo Cultural La Rioja (a shopping mall)

Finally, businesses opened again, and I headed to a highly rated tourist agency, Corona del Inca, to try to find a tour to explore the natural beauty surrounding La Rioja.  I quickly found out that I was once again in trouble as a solo traveler, as all the possible tours required at least four people.  Even though it was vacaciones, La Rioja usually sees very few tourists, and there were no tours leaving in the next few days.  Without much public transportation around the area, it was looking nearly impossible for me to see any of the scenery around La Rioja.

En Route to Parque Nacional TalampayaHowever, as I’ve said time and time again, my trip was blessed, and as I was sitting in the tourist agency, three very blonde, very friendly Dutch women walked in, looking for a tour to Parque Regional Ischigualasto (Valle de la Luna).  Due to transportation costs, tours always include Parque Nacional Talampaya, but the very convoluted management of this national park means foreigners have to pay an additional fee to visit as well as go on a tour guided by the park rangers, driving up the cost of the already expensive tour.  Basically, our tour guide was there for transportation purposes only.  However, as budget travelers, these girls were not sure if it was worth paying so much for a tour that was so similar to the regions they’d just visited in Bolivia.  I agreed with them, but I was in La Rioja, and I was going to find my way to Valle de la Luna.  In the end, they decided to go, and we set off early the next morning to Parque Nacional Talampaya, catching this gorgeous sunrise on the way.

Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya
Parque Nacional Talampaya, La Rioja, Argentina

Parque Nacional Talampaya is basically a red rock canyon which you get to appreciate from the inside.  It is quite lovely to be down on the canyon floor, looking up at the towering rocks.  However, instead of enjoying your ride with your tour guide from La Rioja, you’re forced to go on a large, guided tour with in the park’s official vehicles with one of their official guides.  This is ostensibly to protect the scenery but the cost of this tour is so expensive that it is clearly a revenue generator for the national park system.  Our official guide turned out to be kind of a jerk, stereotypically arrogant as well as super impatient when we lagged behind so that I could translate for the Dutch women, who did not speak much Spanish.  Honestly, our experience with the official guide was so bad that I remember it clearly a year later and very nearly wrote a letter of complaint.  On the bright side, we were lucky enough to have a friendly driver who explained interesting aspects of the history of the canyon and pointed out good photo opportunities from doing this tour so many times.

Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya
Rock Art, Morteros, and Algarrobo Trees in Parque Nacional Talampaya

Beyond the red rock canyon walls, there is a fair amount of rock art left behind by the indigenous cultures that used to inhabit this area, along with more morteros, or ancient mortar and pestles.  The park is also known for the algarrobo trees that grow here.

Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya
Parque Nacional Talampaya, La Rioja, Argentina

We continued along our route, getting out to walk around a few times and take in the various aspects of the landscape.  I especially appreciated the pretty clouds above us and the river creating vibrant, mineral-rich red mud on the surface of the canyon.

Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya
Parque Nacional Talampaya, La Rioja, Argentina

Like Valle de la Luna, which we would visit next, there are several rock formations that look so much like a condor or a cathedral that they are labeled with these names.

Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya
Parque Nacional Talampaya, La Rioja, Argentina

I was less interested in these formations and more intrigued by the steep cliffs towering above us.  We could see the differences in minerals very clearly, shown by the obvious striation in the layers of rock.  This indicates some sort of major climate-related event in the history of the region.

Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya
Parque Nacional Talampaya, La Rioja, Argentina

As we looked out over these towers of red rocks, I paid particular attention to the abrupt change in the landscape.  While the canyon was all red rocks and little vegetation, green bushes grew in abundance just beyond the national park.  You could also spot the peaks of the Andes in the distance.  It was so clear that you could make out the snow-capped mountains!

Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya Views from Parque Nacional Talampaya
Getting Stuck in the Mud and Posing Outside Parque Nacional Talampaya

On our way back, we actually got stuck in the soft mud and had to be towed out.  I found this quite amusing and had to snap a picture.  Before leaving the park, we stopped for lunch.  As it turned out, the on-site restaurant actually offers a vegetarian option that I did not know about, so I’d packed my own snacks to get me through!

Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, ArgentinaAfter leaving Talampaya, we crossed the provincial border into San Juan province en route to Parque Regional Ischigualasto.  A little internet research showed me that the park encompassing Argentina’s Valle de la Luna has actually resisted becoming a national park for many years, probably to keep their revenue inside the province and to let them manage things their own way.

Valle de la Luna has turned up a lot of dinosaur fossils, which are the focus of the small on-site museum.  At Valle de la Luna, the rules are a little different; you must explore the area with an official guide, but all of the vehicles follow him caravan-style, stopping at five official viewpoints, where the guide explains what you’re seeing.  Since it was a big week for travel for Argentines, our caravan was quite large, but the guide was good-humored and interesting and managed to explain the sites very well.  He even tried to speak English with my Dutch companions!

Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina
Valle Pintado, Valle de la Luna, Parque Regional Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina

After the red rocks of Talampaya, Valle de la Luna really did look like another world.  The brown and grey tones of the rocks looked desolate.  If it weren’t for the massive number of visitors, you could certainly imagine being lost on another planet.  I loved the way the blue skies and clouds added another dimension to the landscape.  This part of the tour is called the Valle Pintado for the multicolored rocks in the valley.

Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina
Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina
Views from Valle de la Luna, Parque Regional Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina

While many tourists took pictures of the major landmarks on our tour, I tried to appreciate the different aspects of the rock formations around us, such as the otherworldly shapes, crumbly ground, and the various mineral striations in the distance.

Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina
Cancha de Bochas, Valle de la Luna, Parque Regional Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina

One of the major stops is known as the Cancha de Bochas.  Cancha means court and bochas means bocce balls, so this name describes the orderly lineup of these round rocks.  According to our guide, scientists have no clear idea of how these rocks formed into such round shapes!

Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina
El Submarino Amarillo, Valle de la Luna, Parque Regional Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina

Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina

Next up was the yellow submarine, named for the Beatles song and the color of this ship-like rock formation.

As we walked around to the other side of the yellow submarine, San Juan’s tourism bureau had a surprise for us.  We heard a live orchestra playing a lively version of the famous Beatles song, followed by a tango performance by two talented local dancers.  After that, we were invited to sample San Juan’s local delicacies of raisins, wine, and nuts.  I was very amused by the idea of drinking wine inside a national park; I could not imagine doing that in the United States!

It was nice to see them embracing the high volume of tourists passing through the Valle de la Luna during these two weeks of winter vacation.

Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina
El Hongo, Valle de la Luna, Parque Regional Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina

After enjoying our wine, we piled back into our cars to continue the caravan to the Valle de la Luna’s most famous landmark, El Hongo, or the Mushroom.  Surrounded by the gorgeous colors of the canyon, this rock formation is the most photographed and most distinctive feature of Parque Regional Ischigualasto.

Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina
El Hongo, Valle de la Luna, Parque Regional Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina

After having enough time to sufficiently appreciate its beauty, our tour ended, and we continued the journey out of the valley as the sun set.  As we left, our guide told me that this “five stop” tour was a fairly recent development; a decade ago, you were allowed to drive through the Valle de la Luna independently, stay as long as you wanted, and experience other awesome, photogenic parts of the valley.  I was a little bummed that we could not stay for sunset, as the colors would probably have been amazing!  Like I’ve said, Argentina’s approach to tourism is very different than that of its Andean neighbors, and not in a good way.

Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina Views from Valle de la Luna, or Parque Provincial Ischigualasto, San Juan, Argentina
Sunset over San Juan, Argentina

After leaving the park, we began the long drive back to La Rioja.  I now understood why the tour was so expensive; this tour was 12 hours long and involved driving long distances and a lot of waiting.  On our way back, we had a funny experience: we got stopped by the Argentine police for what seemed to be a routine check.  Apparently this area experiences a lot of illegal immigration (?) and the police wanted to make sure that we were all legal.  However, I had forgotten that it was Argentine law to have my actual passport with me and only had the color copy that sufficed in Peru.  I ended up being very friendly to the police officer and saying, “A copy is okay, right?” as well as translating once again for my Dutch friends, so we had no problems.  Once we were on our way again, our guide told me that they could have asked me to get out of the car and he would have had to leave me behind with them!

I want to say that I made sure to keep my passport on me for the rest of my time in Argentina, but I’m not sure that’s true. 😛  I’m just glad this police officer was not on a power trip and allowed me to continue on my way without any trouble.

I spent the night in La Rioja, and after much internal debate, decided to continue on to Mendoza the next day, which would be my final stop in Argentina.  I had thought about trekking over to Córdoba, but at this point I was ready for some wine, outdoor sports, and relaxation.

Recommendations for La Rioja and San Juan, Argentina:

  • If you’re traveling alone and want to do some adventure tourism, find a group in another city or go to the backpacker hostels around Valle Fertil.  There are some beautiful regional parks in the area, but they’re not easy to get to without your own transportation.  Make a group and rent a car, if at all possible!
  • La Rioja itself is a small provincial capital and not that interesting, aside from some pretty churches and regional weavings and crafts in the Museo Folklórico.  Unless you are very interested in seeing something off the beaten track, I wouldn’t say this city is a must-visit destination.
  • If you stay in La Rioja and are on a backpacker budget, you can stay at Apacheta Hostel, a slightly less expensive hostel located near the city center, or Hostel del Sol, which is nicer and newer, a little more expensive, and about 10 blocks from the center. I really enjoyed Hostel del Sol’s breakfast and common spaces, but it is fairly far from anything.
  • I highly recommend booking your tour with Corona del Inca, which is the most established and reputable agency in the area.  I found them to be very professional.
  • While attractive, I think Parque Nacional Talampaya is overpriced and overrated, and I wouldn’t suggest you go out of you way to visit.  Parque Regional Ischigualasto (Valle de la Luna) is much more interesting, and easier to visit from San Juan.  For a few days around the full moon, they offer a special nighttime tour.  I wish I had known about it before going – it sounds super interesting.
[La Rioja, Argentina: July 24-26, 2013]

Tucumán, Argentina: Exploring the Birthplace of Argentine Independence

Neblina (Cloud Cover) on the Road to Tafí del Valle
Sea of Clouds Over Tafí del Valle, Tucumán

The route between Tucumán and Cafayate takes about five hours; first, the road climbs out of the valley where Cafayate is located, passing through the arid climate of the high Andes, with rolling hills spotted with cacti and sparse vegetation.  From there, the road descends to the province of Tucumán, passing through the small, scenic towns of Amaicha del Valle and Tafí del Valle on the way to the capital, San Miguel de Tucumán.

Views from the Road Between Cafayate and Tafí del Valle Views from the Road Between Cafayate and Tafí del Valle
Views Leaving Cafayate through the Valles Calchaquíes

While northwest Argentina and the provinces of Salta and Jujuy are famous for having a dry climate and lots of sun, Tucumán is located at a lower elevation which invites stormier weather.  July means winter in Argentina, and in Tucumán, this translates to clouds and rain.  Descending through the Valles Calchaquíes, we could see the clouds forming over the Tafí del Valle area.  From afar, it looked like a gorgeous grey-blue lake set amongst the Andes.

Views from the Road Between Cafayate and Tafí del Valle
Clouds above Tafí del Valle, Tucumán

I snapped picture after picture of the clouds from the window of the bus, appreciating the picturesque fog over the valley.  However, as we approached Tafí del Valle, it was clear that the weather was very different within this gorgeous cloud cover.  The beauty of Tafí del Valle was muted by the thick clouds and fog and frigid temperatures.  In 2001, I’d visited this small but touristic town with my study abroad cohort, and I peered out the window looking for details I remembered.  It is still basically a one-street town.

Catedral de Tucumán, Argentina Plaza Independencia, Tucumán Casa del Gobierno de Tucumán
Catedral de Tucumán; Plaza Independencia; Casa del Gobierno de Tucumán

From there, we continued on to the capital of the province, San Miguel de Tucumán, known simply as Tucumán.  Romina and I said our goodbyes as she continued her journey back to her hometown, Córdoba, and I got a cab to my hostel, A La Gurda Hostel.

A La Gurda is a lovely family-owned and operated hostel located in a historic casona (big house) in the heart of Tucumán, and I was immediately welcomed into its embrace upon arrival.  Several guests actually lived there as they did an exchange program or internship, so there was already a core group to hang out with.  It was also the beginning of vacaciones for people from Buenos Aires, so there was a lively atmosphere of people wanting to make the most of their time off.

Almost as soon as I arrived, a group formed to go out to dinner and one of the long-term guests invited us to tag along with him to a house party with tucumanos before heading to a club.  It was Friday night, and when in Tucumán…  We headed to a very trendy club called REcorcholis, where I was taken back about ten years to my life in Buenos Aires, dancing all night surrounded by well-off, fashionable Argentines.

Casa Histórica de la Independencia, Tucumán, ArgentinaI spent the next few days in Tucumán recovering from the all-night party and trying to adjust to the damp winter weather, which chilled me to my bones.  The sun does not reach inside the old casonas, which usually do not have heat, so I basically chased the sun and spent a lot of time reading by the fire.  I toured the historical circuit of Tucumán on a cloudy, cold day, but luckily managed to head back the next day when the sun came out again, which enabled me to capture these lovely pictures of the historical buildings around the Plaza Independencia, the main plaza.

I also checked out the Casa Histórica de la Independencia, where Argentina’s independence had been proclaimed in 1816.  This historic building continues to be painted a brilliant white and is visited by patriotic Argentines, especially on a holiday weekend like this one.

The Pencils Keep Writing - Tucumán, Argentina Hope I'm Useful to You for Something, Tucumán, Argentina
Graffiti in Tucumán, Argentina

Remembering the Disappeared, Tucumán, Argentina

Tucumán is also known for its political and intellectual side, which you can see reflected in the artistic graffiti around the city.  Tucumán has a tragic past; the province was brutally repressed by the military dictatorship from 1976-1983, and tens of thousands of people were “disappeared” by the military, including students, artists, writers, and other intellectuals.  Throughout the city, you see murals and plaques commemorating these losses and asking us to remember the Disappeared.  Answers are still being sought.

The disappeared have not been, and will not be, forgotten.

Dique El Cadillal, Tucumán, Argentina Dique El Cadillal, Tucumán, Argentina
Dique El Cadillal, Tucumán, Argentina
Views from Dique El Cadillal, Tucumán

After a few days of wandering the city and enjoying its cosmopolitan atmosphere, I decided it was time to do something touristic to explore the province beyond the capital.  I joined a tour of the Circuito Chico (Small Circuit/Loop).  Our first stop was Dique El Cadillal, a beautiful reservoir surrounded by green forests.  This is a prime place for water sports during the summer; it has an extensive visitor complex, including a tram to the top of one of the hills where you can get a view of the whole area.  There is also an amphitheater constructed with a chess board in the middle, because why not? 😛

Views from El Siambón, Tucumán, Argentina
Rosary and Roses at El Siambón

After that, we headed to the monastery at El Siambón, where you can buy jams and jellies and natural products made by the monks. From here, you can really get a sense for the green forests of Tucumán; I imagine the scenery is even more gorgeous in the summer.

Views from El Siambón, Tucumán, Argentina Views from El Siambón, Tucumán, Argentina
Views of the Hills Around El Siambón

Views from El Siambón, Tucumán, Argentina

For me, the most interesting part about this stop was our guide’s tales about this statue of Mary.  As you can see from this photo, Mary’s skin is darker that you might expect in Argentina, and her face clearly has indigenous characteristics, reflecting the true heritage of this region of the Andes.  Religious pilgrims visit this statue and leave offerings like the rosary and roses in the above photo.

Views from Cerro San Javier, Tucumán, Argentina
Views of the Green Hills around Cerro San Javier

From El Siambón, we headed to Cerro San Javier to appreciate the views of Tucumán from above.  After spending the past few weeks in the northern deserts, I couldn’t get enough of the greenery.

Views from Cerro San Javier, Tucumán, Argentina Views from Cerro San Javier, Tucumán, Argentina Views from Cerro San Javier, Tucumán, Argentina
Hills of Cerro San Javier; Statue of Christ; Posing at Cerro San Javier

Cerro San Javier is well known locally for its statue of Christ.  There’s even a diagram of some of the most famous Christ statues around the world, comparing their size and shape!

Views from Cerro San Javier, Tucumán, Argentina Views from Cerro San Javier, Tucumán, Argentina
Comparing the Christ Statues Around the World; The City of Tucumán from Above

The views of Tucumán from Cerro San Javier really helped me to understand just how large the city actually is.

Views from Cerro San Javier, Tucumán, Argentina
Views from Cerro San Javier

I loved the visibility of the surrounding valley, with several crests visible in the distance.  Unfortunately, it was too cold to stay for the sunset, and we still had one more stop, to visit the chapel at Villa Nougués, which is surrounded by highly exclusive mansions and is also impossible for commoners like us to visit. 🙂

Parque 9 de Julio, Tucumán, Argentina
Casa del Obispo Colombres, site of the Museo de la Industria Azucarera

On my last day in Tucumán, I decided to visit Parque 9 de Julio, the largest park in Tucumán.  Both Buenos Aires and Mendoza have similar giant parks; their style is distinctly Argentine.  I visited the Casa del Obispo Colombres, an old house which pre-dates the construction of the park, and its Museo de la Industria Azucarera, a museum about the sugar industry in Tucumán.  Did you know that Tucumán province has a great climate for growing sugar cane?  I didn’t!

Parque 9 de Julio, Tucumán, Argentina Parque 9 de Julio, Tucumán, Argentina Parque 9 de Julio, Tucumán, Argentina
Views fom Parque 9 de Julio

Submarino y Factura, Tucumán, ArgentinaAfter a cold walk through the expansive park, I decided to head back towards the hostel.  I found a café and treated myself to my favorite Argentine drink, a submarino.  A submarino is hot chocolate, Argentine style: you receive a glass mug of hot milk and a chocolate bar, which you submerge in the milk until it melts.  Then you add sugar to taste and enjoy your hot chocolate.  I also decided to get a factura instead of the traditional medialunas; a factura is a pastry cream-filled flaky pastry.  I enjoyed both while reading outside in the late afternoon sun.

Making Empanadas @ the Hostel, Tucumán, ArgentinaFinally, I headed back to the hostel to hang out until my bus left much later that night.  I ended up making empanadas from scratch, improvising a cheese and corn filling, and putting the skills I learned in Salta to use!  After a year without an oven in Peru, it was fun to be able to bake things.  It is also a lot warmer when you sit next to the oven in a small kitchen. 🙂

As an illustration of the nice people I met in the hostel, two of the guests accompanied me to the bus station, as my bus was leaving around 1AM and I was nervous about being a target as a solo foreign woman at that hour of the night.  I had decided to take a late bus to La Rioja because the trip was only five or six hours and I wanted to arrive as close to dawn as possible.  I really appreciated their kindness, humor, and patience as they waited for me to get on my bus.  Like I continue to say, I was blessed with awesome companions during my trip, and Tucumán was no exception.

Recommendations for Tucumán, Argentina:

  • Stay at A La Gurda Hostel!  The family that owns the hostel and the staff are super accommodating and friendly.  The hostel has very nice bathrooms, a full kitchen, and a terrace for handwashing your clothes and hanging them to dry.  There’s also a laundry service and grocery store nearby.
  • If you’re vegetarian, there are quite a few vegetarian Chinese restaurants in Tucumán!  They have salad bars where you can get all kinds of delicious food priced by the pound. Fon Restaurante is just down the block from A La Gurda.  I also enjoyed Lotos.
  • You may want to take a tour of the Circuito Chico, but I suggest figuring out public transportation and doing it yourself.  You won’t be able to get to the monastery or see any of the additional stops, but you can easily visit Cerro San Javier and Dique El Cadillal using public buses.
  • You should absolutely visit Tafí del Valle and/or Amaicha del Valle on your trip to Tucumán province.  There are several affordable hostels in Amaicha del Valle.  I wish I had known about this town before leaving Cafayate, as we passed through it on the way to Tucumán!  Alternatively, you could do a tour around the Valles Calchaquíes to see these towns and also visit Quilmes, some of the most substantial and most interesting ruins in Argentina.  I did not revisit Tafí del Valle and Quilmes because I was there in 2001.
  • Try to visit Tucumán in another season besides winter.  There are lot of interesting outdoor activities to do in warmer seasons, and the greenery around the area would be much more impressive.
[Tucumán, Argentina: July 19-23, 2013]

Cafayate, Argentina: Relaxing in the Sunshine of the Argentine Northwest

Quebrada de Cafayate, Argentina
Quebrada de las Conchas, Cafayate, Salta, Argentina

After several days in Salta, I was looking forward to visiting Cafayate. I had been to Cafayate on an overnight tour in 2002, and spent only a few hours in the sleepy town, looking at artesanía while my tour companions went wine tasting. This time around, I planned to stay a few days to soak in the relaxing atmosphere.

Quebrada de Cafayate, Argentina Quebrada de Cafayate, Argentina
Quebrada de las Conchas, Cafayate, Salta, Argentina

To get to Cafayate, you can take one of the frequent buses from Salta; the journey takes about four hours and includes a rest stop along the way. I took an early bus as I knew just how gorgeous the scenery was along Ruta 68, which passes through the Quebrada de las Conchas in the Valle Calchaquíes. I parked myself next to the window and snapped shot after shot after shot of the red rocks, my favorite type of desert scenery.

Quebrada de Cafayate, Argentina Quebrada de Cafayate, Argentina Quebrada de Cafayate, Argentina
Quebrada de las Conchas, Cafayate, Salta, Argentina

After arriving in Cafayate, I found my way to my hostel, El Almacén, a more mature version of a backpacker’s hostel with an attractive, simple design. All of the other guests were Argentine, as my visit fell during Argentina’s winter vacation period. My dormmates were also around my age, which meant I immediately had friends to chat with, and, most importantly, drink mate with! We headed to the park in the plaza to take in the gorgeous sun and enjoy mate, a typical Argentine pastime.

La Casa de las Empanadas, Cafayate, Argentina La Casa de las Empanadas, Cafayate, Argentina
La Casa de las Empanadas, Cafayate, Argentina

I convinced my new friends to come with me to La Casa de las Empanadas because I knew they offered several different types of vegetarian empanadas.  Here, we enjoyed an Argentine Torrontés as we got to know each other and admired the graffiti wall singing the praises of this delicious restaurant.

Morteros near Rio Colorado, Cafayate, Argentina Hiking near the Rio Colorado, Cafayate, Argentina Hiking near the Rio Colorado, Cafayate, Argentina
Morteros Near the Rio Colorado; Waterfalls on the Rio Colorado; Cacti on the Hike

Determined to explore Cafayate both independently and actively, Romina, my Argentine hostel buddy, and I decided to go trekking near the Rio Colorado, where there are several waterfalls.  We got a ride from the guys working in the hostel, and they took us to these morteros, or ancient mortar and pestles carved into the rock.  Afterwards, they dropped us off at the entrance to the Rio Colorado, which is managed by the indigenous community El Divisadero that still lives in this area.

Rio Colorado, Cafayate, Argentina Hiking near the Rio Colorado, Cafayate, Argentina
Hiking near the Rio Colorado, Cafayate, Argentina
Hiking near the Rio Colorado, Cafayate, Argentina

As it turned out, hiking in this area wasn’t as simple, budget friendly, or straightforward as we originally thought. Some of the local guides waiting by the entrance were aggressive to the point of rudeness and unwilling to negotiate prices that Romina was comfortable with. We decided to try it on our own, but soon discovered that there were no signs pointing the way and no clear path. We ended up giving up and hiring a guide who was returning with other tourists; he was talkative and supportive, so it ended up being a good decision.

Hiking near the Rio Colorado, Cafayate, Argentina Hiking near the Rio Colorado, Cafayate, Argentina
Views of Cafayate from Above the Rio Colorado

This hike is also a little confusing. The reason people go on this hike is that there are a certain number of waterfalls along the way, but since they are no signs anywhere, you have no idea if you are actually seeing a waterfall or just a small cascade of water. You have to trust your guide, but you get the feeling that they’ll tell you whatever you want to hear to squeeze a little more money out of you. For example, “If you want to see the next waterfall, it’s another 10 pesos per person, since it’s farther.” When we went back to the hostel, the owners looked at our pictures and told us that we hadn’t actually seen all of the waterfalls.  In the end, I didn’t really care. I enjoyed climbing around the pretty scenery, surrounded by all the cacti, and even doing a bit of rock climbing while scrambling up rock faces (which was scary but also fun!).

On the way down, we stopped at the viewpoint which gave us a nice view from above of Cafayate and the surrounding landscape. We stopped in at the little artesanía shop, where I bought a wooden matero and bombilla for drinking mate, and a sun weaving that is currently hanging on my bedroom door. 🙂 We ended up hitching a ride back to Cafayate from a Paraguayan. I think that was the first time I have ever met someone from Paraguay, and the accent is very distinctive!

Church in Cafayate, Argentina
Helado in Cafayate, Argentina Bodega Nanni, Cafayate, Argentina
Cafayate’s Picturesque Church; Helado (Ice Cream) in Cafayate; One of Cafayate’s Many Wineries

The next day, I decided to take it easy.  I had wanted to rent a bike and explore the wineries around Cafayate, but I was still sore from horseback riding AND the hike.  I needed a day to write emails, research my next stop, and sort through pictures.  I also just wanted to enjoy the laid-back atmosphere of Cafayate, walk around a bit, and eat some ice cream!  I used to be obsessed with Argentine helado.  I decided to try Heladería Miranda, which is known for its wine-flavored ice cream.  I opted for the Malbec, which was not particularly tasty, along with dulce de leche and chocolate con nueces, which were much better.  That evening, Romina and I had dinner in the hostel with the guys who worked there, and then I polished off my wine while reading a book by the fire.

Vineyards Outside Cafayate, Argentina
Vineyards Outside Cafayate

The next day, I decided to move on to Tucumán, a city I had yet to visit.  Before leaving, Romina and I tasted wine at a few of the local bodegas (wineries), a must when visiting Cafayate.  We bought some more empanadas to take on the five hour bus journey, and said goodbye to our hostel buddies before leaving the warmth and sun of Salta province for the rain and clouds of Tucumán.

Recommendations for Cafayate, Argentina:

  • I enjoyed staying at El Almacén Hostel and Bar.  The atmosphere is relaxed and mature, there is a cozy, stylishly designed bar which doubles as a breakfast cafe in the morning, and there is a lovely central patio with an outdoor kitchen which must be perfect in the summer (I went in the winter, and it was cold).  Just note that the in-person dorm price is cheaper than what you see on the internet; it pays to reserve by phone or email or double check the prices when you get there.
  • Eat at La Casa de las Empanadas, especially if you are vegetarian, as they offer a variety of vegetarian empanadas besides cheese!  This place is so delicious that I went three times in the four days I was in Cafayate.
  • Try the wine-flavored ice cream at Heladería Miranda, but opt for the Torrontés flavor over the Malbec.
  • If you decide to go on the Rio Colorado hike, negotiate your price with the guide before beginning the trek and make sure he is very clear with you regarding how many waterfalls you will actually see.  Go early enough to see all of the waterfalls if that is important to you.  Don’t forget to bring some money to shop at the little artesanía stall at the entrance.
  • You can get on and off the buses that pass between Salta and Cafayate, which enables you to explore the Quebrada de las Conchas at your own speed.  Romina rented a bike, took it with her to one of the main stops along the route, and biked back to Cafayate.  Ask around to figure out the best way to explore the Valle Calchaquíes.
[Cafayate, Argentina: July 16-19, 2013]

Salta, Argentina: Revisiting a Once-Loved City

Scenes from Salta, Argentina Scenes from Salta, Argentina Scenes from Salta, Argentina
Catedral Basílica de Salta; One of Salta’s Photogenic Streets; Salta Street Art

For years, I have been telling people that they must visit, Salta, Argentina, my favorite city in the world, set amongst some of Argentina’s most impressive scenery. I first visited Salta in 2001 after a two-week long cultural and language immersion in Tafí del Valle, Tucumán with my study abroad program. We were bussed through the amazingly beautiful Quebrada de Cafayate and spent a day in Salta before flying back to Buenos Aires. I liked it enough that I returned in 2002 at the end of my year abroad, and spent a week there, taking in the northwest Argentine atmosphere and culture. I made a point of returning in 2007 while I was doing research for my Master’s thesis, and found that Salta had blossomed into a vibrant, modern city.

Sometime in the last few years, Argentina started to require a $160 tourist visa for Americans hoping to visit the beautiful country. That was a significant chunk of my traveling budget, and I wasn’t sure it would be worth it. Coupled with the winter storms complicating the border crossing, I reconsidered visiting Argentina at all.  I emailed my mom with my doubts: “I’m trying to decide if I should head south to see more of Chile or head back to Peru if I can’t get to Argentina. Part of me feels like I don’t really need to recover all the places I enjoyed again, for some reason.”  She, wisely, responded, “I would pass on Argentina.  You have been there, done that.  There is too much other stuff to see.”

However, the border opened and I bought my ticket to Salta anyway, all the while reminding myself that this trip would be focused on seeing places I had missed during my previous trips to Argentina.

Scenes from Salta, Argentina Scenes from Salta, Argentina
Cabildo de Salta; Plaza Principal de Salta

The thing is, my mom was right. I had been there, done that, many times, and the expression “You can never go home again” applied to my visit to Argentina. In fact, this is why I have struggled to write this post; my trip was so overwhelmingly positive and magical otherwise. However, this is the reality of revisiting your former home: Time passes, you change, cities change, and your perspective on places you called home changes.

Argentina has changed so much since 2001 due to its ongoing economic crisis, and yet the Argentine people struggle to adapt to their new reality.  Argentines are not Peruvians, they are not Chileans, they are not Ecuadorians, and they are certainly not Brazilians or Colombians.  They have reacted in a distinctly Argentine way to the most recent economic crisis, and I say this as someone who truly has truly loved and appreciated Argentine culture for many years.

Since the peso was devalued in 2001, foreign tourists have flooded Argentina to explore its truly unique scenery and culture.  However, Argentines remain distant, cold, and unfriendly to foreigners, as if they are resentful of this intrusion even as they need the dollars tourists bring.  Instead of embracing tourism as a revenue-generating national industry as Peru has, Argentina reluctantly facilitates tourism and misses opportunity after opportunity to market and highlight its special culture, people, and landscapes.

Scenes from Salta, Argentina Scenes from Salta, Argentina
Murals and Street Art in Salta, Argentina

Salta was no exception.  Around the main plaza, Plaza 9 de Julio, with its distinctive, well-preserved colonial buildings, including the historical Cabildo, and the nearby Catedral Basílica de Salta, Salta maintains its charm.  Venture more than a few blocks away, and the city is very obviously in decay.  I stayed outside the main tourist areas and explored the city on foot and was shocked by the change in Salta la Linda (Salta the Beautiful).  Argentines have always been excellent at expressing themselves through art, and the plentiful murals throughout the city reflect the struggle of the hardworking Argentines.

Always curious, always a cultural researcher at heart, I chatted with business owners when doing my laundry, buying bottled water, and booking hostel stays and tours, trying to learn more about this change in Salta.  The country is in crisis, and it breaks my heart because there seems to be no way out.  When I moved to Argentina in July 2001, 100 pesos was equal to 100 dollars and the 100 peso bill was hard to change anywhere but the supermarket.  Now, 100 pesos has the value of a $20 bill, and small change is hard to find, as coins are not often minted nor small bills printed in quantity since they have lost so much value.  The bills are disintegrating and taped together, and they are nearly impossible to change outside of the country.  Frankly, it’s depressing.

Scenes from Salta, Argentina Scenes from Salta, Argentina
Homemade Humita Filling in Stuffed Squash and Peppers; Sign for Argentine Pastries, Salta

But at the end of the day, Argentina is not my country and I have been gone for far too long to really know about and understand the challenges my friends face.  All I can do is be an outside observer of these changes, a witness who tries to see and listen with compassion. So instead of trying to relive the glory of my past experiences in Salta, I focused on building relationships and connecting with people, and this made my time much better. When I think of my time in Argentina in 2013, I remember the people I met and the moments we shared.

For example, I quickly befriended one of the guys working at Hostal Salta Por Siempre, where I really enjoyed staying. An experienced regional chef, he was making and selling empanadas but none of them were vegetarian, so he sent me to the local grocery with a list of ingredients and taught me to make the above dish, local squash and bell peppers filled with a creamy corn custard, or humita.  Argentina has an ideal climate for agriculture, and the corn was so sweet you could eat the kernels off the cob.  The tomatoes were so flavorful that they needed nothing but a sprinkling of oregano to shine.  A few days later, my new friend made vegetarian empanadas and taught me how to fill them and seal them, a skill I used again in Tucumán and Mendoza.

Merienda on the Plaza, Salta
Merienda on the Plaza, Salta

In my dorm room, I also happened to meet an Argentine who had just finished a lengthy volunteer term working with kids in the hot, barren city of Rivadavia in northern Salta province.  He had given up his life in the corporate world to manage a volunteer program and, like me, became very attached to the kids.  He had left Rivadavia only days before and was struggling to process this loss, while also having trouble adapting to the busy, congested city of Salta after living in an isolated community for nearly a year.

As you can imagine, we talked for hours over Argentine wine about our relationships with the kids we worked with, showed each other pictures of our volunteer experiences, and emphasized how blessed we felt after taking this kind of risk and building these connections with our students within our host communities.  This was another example of life happening as it should; I needed time and space to process leaving Huaycán, and the universe threw someone going through the same thing as me right into my path.

Beyond getting to know these awesome men, I also decided to appreciate classic Salta culture.  I chose one of the many cafes on the plaza and sat in the warm sun to enjoy a merienda, or traditional Argentine afternoon coffee/snack with medialunas (Argentine-style croissants) and tostados (toast), served with jam, butter, and dulce de leche (caramel), a little orange juice, tonic water, and black tea for me instead of coffee.

During my visit, I also decided to visit the Museo Pajcha, a private museum which attempts to celebrate most of the cultures of South America in an eclectic, artistic way, taking the visitor on a carefully curated journey.  In retrospect, this museum was quite refreshing and inspired.  It may not have been the most informative, but it was memorable, interesting, and not as overwhelming as the larger museums often are.

Scenes from Salta, Argentina Scenes from Salta, Argentina
Horseback Riding in Chicoana, Salta, Argentina; Views of the Farmland around Chicoana

After a couple of days in Salta, I decided that I wanted to go horseback riding again.  In 2007, I had learned how to ride with Sayta Cabalgatas, which inspired my love for horses.  I decided to go back, and this time spend a night on the estancia (horse ranch) to really get the full experience away from the city.  As it turned out, I was the only one riding that day, so I got a private lesson.  I also learned all about Chicoana from my guide, who grew up there and for whom riding horses was as natural as breathing.

Horseback Riding in Chicoana, Salta
Horseback Riding in Chicoana, Salta, Argentina

After a delicious lunch with the owner, Enrique, and his family, we set off again for the afternoon’s ride, this time with Enrique’s adorable, intelligent grandson.  This ride was similar to the first and gave me the chance to appreciate the pleasant, bucolic landscape of the farmlands around Chicoana a little more.

Scenes from Salta, Argentina Scenes from Salta, Argentina
Scenes from Chicoana, Salta, Argentina

That night, I enjoyed more empanadas with some newly arrived guests and got my relaxing night’s sleep in a private cabin on the ranch.  It was weird to be so disconnected from the world, but after so much riding, I fell asleep quickly.  Before heading back to Salta the next morning, I helped the large, newly arrived group of mostly British tourists get settled on their horses, since most of them didn’t speak much Spanish.  This led Enrique to tell me about the volunteers he usually has working on the ranch, who basically socialize with guests and translate for the gauchos, who don’t usually speak much English.  I was tempted by the idea of staying here a little longer, but I had had enough of volunteering and was antsy to continue my journey.

Back in Salta, I had lunch at Chirimoya, a highly regarded vegetarian restaurant, before planning my departure for Cafayate the next day.  I ended up making the most of my time in Salta and learned a lot about how the city and the country have changed in the process.  Most importantly, I realized how much I have changed since 2001 and now see clearly how my perspective can color my perceptions, a lesson that never ceases to be valuable when traveling.

Recommendations for Salta, Argentina:

  • Stay at Hostal Salta Por Siempre (English)!  I had the misfortune of booking my first night at a different hostel, but was immediately welcomed at Hostal Salta Por Siempre.  They almost always have space, although they do fill up during busy travel seasons.  They have a large kitchen for cooking, a gorgeous outdoor garden and patio (the best place for wi-fi), and a small indoor bar where they also sell housemade empanadas.  Everyone who works there is super friendly and the hostal is popular with Argentines of all ages so you’ll definitely get to practice your Spanish.
  • Consider going horseback riding with Sayta Cabalgatas in Chicoana.  Enrique and his staff have perfected the art of hosting foreigners who want to ride horses around the pretty roads and fields around Chicoana and leave with good memories of the wine, food, and people.  It was so memorable in 2007 that I returned in 2013.
  • Check out the Museo Pajcha if you’re interested in having a different type of museum experience.
  • If you’re a vegetarian, eat at Chirimoya for flavorful vegan soups, other dishes, and smoothies.
[Salta, Argentina: July 12-July 15, 2013]